New NASA Hurricane Transmitters Will Keep Us Safer in the Caribbean, Next Year
SAN ANTONIO – Tiny hurricane-tracking satellites that are being assembled in a “clean room” at Southwest Research Institute and are the size of carry-on suitcases soon could help scientists better understand dangerous storms and aid forecasters in assessing their destructive threat.
Unlike other weather instruments, the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System will allow scientists to measure the core wind speeds in hurricanes and detect rapid changes in their intensity as they approach land, in time for life-saving evacuations.
“Over the last several decades, they’ve gotten very good at predicting where hurricanes will make landfall, but they didn’t have the data to show how it could intensify. And if it all works like we’re expecting, this system could solve that,” said John Scherrer, project leader at SwRI.
The San Antonio research lab and the University of Michigan are partners on the $100 million project that is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The system, called CYGNSS, was chosen by NASA from 20 other competitive proposals in 2012.
Launch date for the eight low-orbit satellites from the Kennedy Space Center is October 2016. The system is expected to be funded for two years.
Adam Ridley, a scientist at the University of Michigan, said the inability of weather forecasters to accurately identify which hurricanes are real threats creates confusion with the public, leading to false alarms that cause people to needlessly evacuate, or worse, a failure to recognize a killer hurricane, such as Katrina, in time to escape.
“If you tell everyone in South Carolina to evacuate because this gigantic hurricane is coming, there’s a good chance it will hit South Carolina but only a 50-50 chance that it will strengthen or weaken. So it could turn into a big dud and the next time people won’t believe the forecasts,” he said.
“So we need to improve our ability to predict if a hurricane will be dangerous. I would say CYGNSS will allow us to better predict the wind speeds in hurricanes and their strength when they make landfall,” he said.
In its news releases about the satellite project, NASA invokes Katrina, the monster hurricane that in hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week, flooding 80 percent of the city, taking more than 1,800 lives and leaving millions homeless in several states. In the hours before landfall, there was little sense of mortal danger in New Orleans.
Ridley said the eight satellites will circle the earth at about 17,000 mph at an altitude of about 300 miles. They will be spaced around the earth, and their orbits will extend above and below the equator, covering the globe’s tropical storm zones. The satellites will communicate with various ground stations and the mission operations center in Colorado.
Among the early users of data generated by the satellites will be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NASA said.
In the clean room at SwRI, where engineers work wearing booties, hair nets, pale blue jackets and purple gloves, an assembled model of a satellite is being used for testing. Work on the first of the eight to be sent into space is underway.
“We’ve been in the space business since the ’80s. We’ve built virtually every component of a spacecraft, but we’ve never actually built a spacecraft, so this is a first,” said Scherrer, manager of a project that involves about 60 people at SWRI, without counting all the sub-contractors.
“What’s really cool about this is that the whole spacecraft can sit on your desk. A typical spacecraft is as big as a car,” he added.
Lead test engineer Antonina Brody said the team is eager to see how the first finished satellite will perform.
“We’ve completed the tests on our engineering model,” Brody said. “I can’t wait to power up the satellite and start testing it in flight mode. This is what counts, and what will go up in space.”